Researchers again examined the fossilized bones of a Neanderthal found in 1908 in a cave near the French village of La Chapelle-aux-Saints. The ‘Old Man of La Chapelle’, as he became known, was the first relatively complete Neanderthal skeleton to be excavated and is one of the best studied.
More than a century after its discovery, its bones still provide new information about the life of Neanderthals, the heavily built Stone Age hominids that lived in Europe and parts of Asia before disappearing about 40,000 years ago.
During that reanalysis, Dr. However, Martin Haeusler – an internal medicine specialist and head of the Evolutionary Morphology and Adaptation Group at the University of Zurich at the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine – realized that not all changes in the bones could be explained by the wear and tear of osteoarthritis.
“Rather, we found that some of these pathological changes must be due to inflammatory processes,” he said.
“A comparison of the whole pattern of the pathological changes found in the La Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton with many different diseases then led us to the diagnosis of brucellosis.”
It is also one of the most common zoonotic diseases – diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans. They include viruses such as HIV and the coronavirus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic.
Brucella has a wide variety of symptoms, including fever, muscle aches and night sweats, Haeusler said. It can take several weeks to many months or even years. Long-term problems from the disease are variable, but can include arthritis pain, back pain, inflammation of the testes — which can lead to infertility — and inflammation of the heart valves known as endocarditis, which Haeusler said was the most common cause of die from the disease.
The paper said the case was “the earliest safe evidence of this zoonotic disease in hominin evolution.”
The disease has also been found in Homo sapiens skeletons from the Bronze Age, dating to about 5,000 years ago.
Brucellosis is found in many wild animals today, and Haeusler said Neanderthals likely contracted the disease from slaughtering or cooking an animal that had been hunted as prey. Possible sources include wild sheep, goats, wild cattle, bison, reindeer, hares and marmots — all of which were components of the Neanderthal diet. However, the paper said the two large animals Neanderthals hunted, mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses, probably wouldn’t be the disease reservoir — at least based on the animals’ living relatives, in which brucellosis has gone largely undetected.
Considering the man lived to what must have been a very advanced age for that period, Haeusler suspected that the Neanderthals may have had a milder version of the disease.
An early reconstruction of the skeleton depicted the man with a lanky stance, knees bent and head thrust forward. It wasn’t until later that scientists realized that the skeleton had a deforming form of osteoarthritis and may not have been a typical Neanderthal.
Haeusler said the study he published in 2019 showed that, even with the wear and tear of degenerative osteoarthritis, the “old man of Chapelle” would have walked upright. The man had also lost most of his teeth and may have been fed by other members of his group.